IT Hero Culture

I’ve written before about rock stars and IT super heroes. We all know or have worked with someone like this in the past. Perhaps we still do have someone in the organization that fits the description. But have you ever stopped to consider how it could be our culture that breeds the very people we don’t want around?

Keeping The Lights On

When’s the last time you got recognition for the network operating smoothly? Unless it was in response to a huge traffic spike or an attack that tried to knock you offline, the answer is probably never or rarely. Despite the fact that networks are hard to build and even harder to operate, we rarely get recognized for keeping the lights on day after day.

It’s not all that uncommon. The accounting department doesn’t get recognized when the books are balanced. The janitorial staff doesn’t get an exceptional call out when the floors are mopped. And the electric company doesn’t get a gold star because they really did keep the lights on. All of these things are examples of expected operation. When we plug something into a power socket, we expect it to work. When we plug a router in, we expect it to work as well. It may take more configuration to get the router working than the electrical outlet, but that’s just because the hard work of the wiring has already been done.

The only time we start to notice things is when they’re outside our expectation. When the accounting department’s books are wrong. When the floors are dirty. When the lights aren’t on. We’re very quick to notice failure. And, often, we have to work very hard to minimize the culture that lays blame for failure. I’ve already talked a lot about things like blameless post-mortems and other ways to attack problems instead of people. Companies are embracing the idea that we need to fix issues with our systems and not shame our people into submission for things they might not have had complete control over.

Put On The Cape

Have you ever thought about what happens in the other direction, though? I can speak from experience because I spent a lot of time in that role. As a senior engineer from a VAR, I was often called upon to ride in and save the day. Maybe it was after some other company had tried to install something and failed. Or perhaps it was after one of my own technicians had created an issue that needed to be resolved. I was ready on my white horse to ride in and save the day.

And it felt nice to be recognized for doing it! Everyone feels a bit of pride when you are the person to fix an issue or get a site back up and running after an outage. Adulation is a much better feeling than shame without a doubt. But it also beat apathy too. People don’t get those warm fuzzy feelings from just keeping the lights on, after all.

The culture we create that worships those that resolve issues with superhuman skill reinforces the idea that those traits are desirable in engineers. Think about which person you’d rather have working on your network:

  • Engineer A takes two months to plan the cutover and wants to make sure everything goes smoothly before making it happen.
  • Engineer B cuts over with very little planning and then spends three hours of the maintenance window getting all the systems back online after a bug causes an outage. Everything is back up and running before the end of the window.

Almost everyone will say they want Engineer A working for them, right? Planning and methodical reasoning beats a YOLO attitude any day of the week. But who do we recognize as the rockstar with special skills? Probably Engineer B. Whether or not they created their own issue they are the one that went above and beyond to fix it.

We don’t reward people for producing great Disaster Recovery documentation. We laud them for pulling a 36-hour shift to rebuild everything because there wasn’t a document in the first place. We don’t recognize people that spend an extra day during a wireless site survey to make sure they didn’t miss anything in a warehouse. But we really love the people that come in after-the-fact and spend countless hours fixing it.

Acknowledging Averages

Should we stop thanking people for all their hard work in solving problems? No. Because failure to appreciate true skills in a technical resource will sour them on the job quickly. But, if we truly want to stop the hero worshipping behavior that grows from IT, we have to start acknowledging the people that put in hard work day after day to stay invisible.

We need to give a pat on the back to an engineer that built a good script to upgrade switches. Or to someone that spent a little extra time making sure the site survey report covered everything in detail. We need to help people understand that it’s okay to get your job done and not make a scene. And we have to make sure that we average out the good and the bad when trying to ascertain root cause in outages.

Instead of lauding rock stars for spending 18 hours fixing a routing issue, let’s examine why the issue occurred in the first place. This kind of analysis often happens when it’s a consultant that has to fix the issue since a cost is associated with the fix, but it rarely happens in IT departments in-house. We have to start thinking of the cost of this rock star or white knight behavior as being something akin to money or capital in the environment.

Tom’s Take

Rock star culture and hero worship in IT isn’t going to stop tomorrow. It’s because we want to recognize the people that do the work. We want to hold those that go above and beyond up to those that we want to emulate them. But we should also be asking hard questions about why it was necessary for there to need to be a hero in the first place. And we have to be willing to share some of the adulation with those that keep the lights on between disasters that need heroes.

You Don’t Want To Be A Rock Star

When I say “rock star”, you probably have all kinds of images that pop up in your head. Private planes, penthouse suites, grand stages, and wheelbarrows full of money are probably on that list somewhere. Maybe you’re a purist and you think of someone dedicated to the craft of entertaining the masses and trying to claw their way to fame one note at a time. But I’m also sure in both of those cases you also think about the negative aspects of being a rock star. Like ego. And lack of humility. I want to touch on some of that as it pertains to our jobs and our involvement in the community.

Great Like Elvis. Without The Tassels.

The rock star mentality at work is easy to come by. Perhaps you’re very good at what you do. You may even be the best at your company or even at the collection of companies that are your competitors. You’re the best senior architect there is. You know the products and the protocols and you can implement a complex project with your eyes closed. That’s how people start looking at you. Larger than life. The best. One of a kind.

And that should be the end of it, right? That person is the best and that’s that. Unless you start believing their words more than you should. Unless you think that you really are the best and that there is no one better than you. It’s a mentality I see all the time, especially in sports or in places with small sample sizes. A kid that knows how to pitch a baseball well in the 8th grade thinks he’s the king of the baseball diamond. Until he sees someone that pitches way better than he does or he gets to high school and realizes he’s just the average of everyone else around him.

IT creates rock stars because we have knowledge that no one else does. We also fix issues for users, which creates visibility. No one talks about how accountants or HR reps are rock stars. Even though they have knowledge or solve problems for their users. It’s because IT is so practical. Anyone can do math, right? Or fill out a form? IT is hard. You have to know computer stuff. You have to learn acronyms. It’s like being a doctor or a lawyer. And both of those groups produce their own rock stars. So too does IT. And it causes the exact same issues that it does in the medical or legal fields.

Rock stars know it all. They don’t want to listen because they’ve got this. They can figure this out and they don’t need you telling them what to do. Why call support? I’ll just look up the problem. Go do something else and stop bothering them because they’re not going to fail here. This is what they do. Any of that sound familiar? If you’re on the team with a rock star it probably does.

Trade This Life For Fortune And Fame

The rock star mentality extends into the wider community too. People get vaulted into high esteem for their contributions. They get recognized for what they do and held up as an example for others. For most that are thrust into that rarified air of community fame that’s the end of it. But some take it as an invitation to take more.

You’ve seen them. The prima donnas. The people that take the inch of fame they’ve been given and stretch it into a mile. The people who try to manipulate and cajole the rest of their fellows into outlandish things for no other reason than they can do it. Again, if you’ve ever been around people like this in a community you know how toxic and terrible it can be.

So how do you combat that? How can you keep rock stars from getting an ego the size of Alaska? How do you prevent someone from getting an attitude and poisoning a community? How do you keep things together and on-track?

Sadly, the answer doesn’t lie much in preventing the rock star behavior in the first place. Because it’s going to happen no matter what you do. People that do good things are going to be held above others. It’s the nature of recognition to want to reward people’s outstanding behavior and showcase the attributes and traits that they want to see in others. And that can often cause people to take those traits and run with them or assume that you want to showcase all of their traits, even the bad ones.

Cut My Hair and Change My Name

The key that I’ve found most successful in my time working with communities is to highlight those traits and refer them back to the collective to remind the person they are part of a greater whole. If you praise someone for organizing an event, tell them, “Thank you for giving the community a place to meet and talk.” You’re still holding them up for doing a good job, but you’re referencing the community. For the workplace rock stars, try something like “Thanks for working all night to ensure that the entire office had email service this morning.” It reinforces that Herculean tasks like that have a real payoff but that the work is still referenced to a greater whole and not just the ego of someone working to prove a point.

You have to positively identify the traits you like and tie them to greater success in order to select them out and prevent someone from highlighting negative traits that could be detrimental. It’s easy for some that’s good at organization to take it too far and start running everything for a community without being asked. It’s also likely that someone that has a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips could start interjecting into conversations without permission because they think they know the answer. But if you reinforce the value of those traits to the community you’ll make the members think more carefully about their contributions as they exercise them.

Tom’s Take

I’m no expert on community building. Or rock stars for that matter. I’m just a person that does what I can to help others succeed. And I think that’s the mark of a real servant leader and perfect community mentor. The rock star mentality is the polar opposite of this. Rock stars want personal fame at the expense of the group. Servant leaders want group success even if it means not being recognized. Some of the best people in the community I know prefer to hide in the background and avoid the “fame” of being recognized. We would do well to follow their examples when the time comes for us to step on stage.